Ballad of a Nun, a Bordello, and Mary

Gaia Orion, "The Virgin, the Whore, and the Sinner"

Gaia Orion, “The Virgin, the Whore, and the Sinner”

Spiritual Sunday

For a self-proclaimed atheist, my late father certainly wrote a lot of religious poetry. Here’s one I’ve always enjoyed, based on a medieval French fable (“fabliau”) about a nun who engages in a bit of extra curricular activity.

As readers of Chaucer know, the Middle Ages had no difficulty moving between the religious and the bawdy. At the end of the poem, the Scott Bates meditates on the lesson to be drawn. Ask yourself what you think the moral is as you read:

The Ballad of Thoughtful Love

By Scott Bates

Of a nun they tell in a chilly cell
In medieval weather
Who loved her Lady Mary well
But loved her freedom better.

When Spring was at its handsomest
She flew off like a swallow
To build a fair and warmer nest
In a busy town bordello.

Therein she lived for many years
Of fleshly fascinations
Till hungry little demon fears
Of deep incinerations

Restored her to her chilly cell
–Where nobody had missed her
Sweet Mary having played so well
Her role as pious Sister.

Which proves, I guess, a moral of
Sin-sacrifice-salvation
As well as one of thoughtful love
That saves much explanation.

My father noted that Spanish director Luis Bunuel used this story in the climactic scene of The Milky Way.

So what is its moral? Well, that we can be saved from sin, of course (“sin-sacrifice-salvation”). That’s an interpretation in line with orthodox Christianity.

We can also see the story, from a Jungian perspective, as articulating our different selves, the celestial and the earthly.

But here’s the moral of the last two lines: Mary so loves small people that she’ll cover for them and make sure they don’t get into trouble. Basic kindness ultimately saves the day. Or as the poem calls it, “thoughtful love.”

As I think about it, thoughtful love was my father’s religion. It can take one a long way.

A note on the artist: Gaia Orion’s captivating work can be found at artbygaia.com.

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  • Barbara

    It also speaks to a feminine side of God peeking out from behind the harsh, judgmental guy with the beard. An old Catholic joke has God-Jesus berating St. Peter (keeper of the gates of heaven) for letting all these sinners in. We have standards here, after all. Peter replies that that’s fine, but when I turn them away they go around to the back door and your mother lets them in. There is/was also a series of prayers and activities (confession, communion) every month for nine straight months (Novena). It was said that the Virgin had promised, in a vision to one of her saints, that she would provide all the grace needed to get into heaven to anyone who did this. When I was a child, many churches held special services on the first Saturday of every month so believers could fulfill the requirements.

  • Robin Bates

    Beautifully put, Barbara. It helps explain why Mary became so important in the medieval church. I love the way that her popularity came out of the people, not initially out of the church establishment. The fabliaux were folk stories, not high art.


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